Twenty-three glass plate negatives measuring 4 x 5 inches. Some with scratches and/or spotting, but very good overall.
Although the bicycle had been around for several decades by the 1890s, technological innovations in the late nineteenth century that made bikes lighter, faster, and easier to ride sparked a new burst of enthusiasm for cycling among the American public. People of all ages and social classes purchased bicycles and took to the streets and country lanes, giving impetus to a movement to improve the quality of roads. Monthly magazines began publishing long articles about bicycle tours, newspapers added regular columns on the sport and filled their pages with ads for bicycles and accessories, doctors discussed the health risks and benefits, women’s skirts got shorter to facilitate riding (much to the dismay of some), and hundreds of new cycling clubs organized races and outings. One such club was the South Paris Wheel Club in Oxford County, Maine.
This collection of rare images documents the activities of the South Paris Wheel Club on the Fourth of July, 1892. As part of a larger Independence Day celebration that also included a baseball game, the Wheel Club sponsored both a “Grand Cycling Tournament” and “Grand Bicycle Parade.” Fourteen of the photos were taken at the Oxford County Fairgrounds, and most of these capture the tournament in progress—showing groups of racers assembling at the starting line and then on the move, as spectators line the rails and officials look down from their stand above the tracks. Most appear to be straightforward races, but one unique view shows a man on a high-wheeled unicycle clearing an obstacle—either as part of an obstacle course or a trick-riding display. Also taken at the fairgrounds are shots of the bustling crowd and smalls groups of men and women enjoying the day. The rest of the images were taken in what appears to be a small downtown (presumably South Paris). These include shots of a large gathering of men with their bicycles—most likely assembled in preparation for the bicycle parade, and including some high wheels—as well as arresting portraits of individual men and boys posing with their rides.
We do not have definitive identification of the photographer, but a strong candidate is a young woman named Minnie Libby (1863-1947), who lived in the town of Norway, just a mile down the road from the fairgrounds. Miss Libby (as she would come to be known professionally) was the daughter of a successful Norway carriage-maker who recognized her artistic ability, sent her to study at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and in 1886 helped finance the professional photography studio she would run for the next six decades. Although she was primarily a portrait photographer, Miss Libby was also known to roam the countryside (in pants!) taking shots of the local landscape, and we do know she photographed the Oxford County Fair for several years during the first decade of the twentieth century. If this is indeed the photography of Minnie Libby, the photos in this collection would represent some of her earliest work. Given her proximity, documented interest in activity at the fairgrounds, and the small number of photographers who would have been operating in this rural county, she seems a likely bet—but for now it remains a question for further research.